Friday, August 08, 2008

Commentary on Rowan Williams official response to the publication of the London Times Letters

Rowan Williams has been consistent when it comes to this view he takes in his statement released today in response to the sudden publication of letters he wrote to a lay woman eleven years ago when he was the Archbishop of Wales.

There seems to have been an assumption that while Rowan Williams is progressive in his theology and his politics, that it would follow that he would support the theological and political innovations coming from the Episcopal Church in the United States. After all, that's what American bishops do - they engage politically, not theologically. We have no N.T. Wright.

But if there's anything we've learned over the past ten days it's that there is indeed a certain wariness, even weariness, in the aggressive political tactics employed by the TEC leadership and their hired hands at Lambeth. The sight of Gene Robinson holding court daily outside the gates, carrying on and playing the martyr just got a little too old a little too fast. It was outside the realms of decorum and just plain rude - and he didn't even seem to have a clue. Now in the U.S. we sometimes - sometimes - celebrate such leaps out of decorum, but not always. Much of it has to do with timing and the fickle mood of the electorate. "I want them dead or alive" can hit just the right chord one day, while on another that president's wife gently mocks him back to presidential decorum. Figuring out that timing is the difference between right on the nose or right off your rocker.

I understand what Rowan Williams is saying in his statement and agree with him. I also continue to maintain that the eleven-year-old letters were intended as a smear to embarrass him and pressure him into compliance, causing strain on his efforts to build an alliance with the Global South (and how much of that was strained beyond repair in a matter of days we shall see). In the West we can appear to hold idea one way while simultaneously promoting their the contrary view in our actions. This is a luxury not enjoyed by most parts of the Communion under siege, where one can find oneself looking down the barrel of a gun when confronted with apparent duplicity brought by failed leadership. There are those who would like to see Rowan Williams presented that way, but to the detriment of the Communion itself as well as any sense of following the moral highroad. What some may have done in secret in planning the release of these letters, God knows Himself - and that should be duly noted.

For many of us, we have come to understand that while we might hold private ideas, we are charged with public duties and sometimes the two are not compatible. Case in point - I signed up to be an Episcopalian/Anglican. But privately, I support lay-lead Eucharists. I know, it's shocking to some of my friends, but I almost find the whole idea of clergy and bishops a bit much on occasion, especially when it comes to the Eucharist. However, I signed up to be an Episcopalian/Anglican where it's very clear that ordained clergy preside over the Table and that's it. No questions, no prisoners. Want to see how quickly so-called progressives turn into reactionaries - ask them about Lay Presiding and suddenly they are all High Church Anglo Catholics recoiling in horror at such a thing! Ask about ordaining non-celibate homosexuals and they are ready to do so before dinner. There's a lesson there.

Yet it is clear, from doctrine and scripture and tradition and international polity, both are not accepted as the Anglican way. A bishop like Rowan Williams may try to make the case for what he may think privately, but he's not going to abandon his understanding of the catholicity of the Church to engage in the promotion of his own ego. He understands - and frankly this statement is possibly what we hoped to see come out Lambeth and it might as well come from him and it might as well come now after this attempt by his enemies to weaken his position - he fully endorses as doctrine Lambeth 1.10 as part of his charge in his office. He says it carries the "authoritative basis" for what he speaks in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. This is good news. That Lambeth 1.10 carries such significant weight with him and in his position is in fact, very good news.

The subtext of his statement is aimed at the Episcopal Church (who seems to have gained momentarily the most from Rowan Williams' very bad press coverage over the past two days, which we should all take note). The subtext is this: If Rowan Williams can give up his own privately held ideas - ideas that must have been strong enough for him to take the time to articulate them in lectures and personal correspondence - for the welfare and health and future of the Anglican Communion, well, the Episcopal Church as a province should nigh do so as well. If he must do it, so should they. That is the subtext - it came through clear in his final press conference and it comes through clear in this statement.

For the Episcopal Church (who possibly would rather see the flood waters rise and overflow the levies rather than back off what they believe is the unique prophetic voice of the spirit to the leadership of The Episcopal Church) to call into question and to doubt the rightness of their prophetic cause for full inclusion, a cause they compare to a civil right, is - at this point - impossible. To do so might actually cast some doubt as to whether they really did hear the right voice from the right spirit telling them to do the right thing. It might actually mean that they were wrong - and the ramifications of such a catastrophic error goes far beyond this life, a sobering thought indeed.

We will see a call for diocesan bishops to put thumbs up or thumbs down on the Covenant. But if it goes to the Province, as is required by the Lambeth recommendations, it will have to go to General Convention and the idea of General Convention taking a more conservative stance than the House of Bishops is downright laughable. The House of Deputies - who do not represent a democratic form of government by the way, since no matter how large or how tiny the TEC diocese might be, they all get the same number of Deputies and Alternates which is, well, to be quite frank, insane. But this is how the lock on the political process works. The only reason it didn't work in regards to B033 at Columbus was because of the personal - and unprecedented - intervention by the presiding bishop-elect who marched on to the floor of the House of Deputies and begged them to give her that resolution. The deputies complied, but they won't make that mistake again. And neither will Katharine "I'll keep my arms folded" Jefferts Schori.

Note that Rowan Williams calls his writings "speculation," which is hardly at the level of calling for prophetic action of the spirit or full inclusion as a human right. In this matter, he upholds the institution over individual conscience. Not good news to TEC.

On one hand, we could fault him for lacking the moral courage of his convictions (though he calls his old views speculations - a very different level of commitment than as if he was some underground crusader dressed up as a Welsh gnome to build a Brave New Church). But as we noted, if you sign up for this particular brand of Christianity some things come as part of the package deal. In my case, I understood that accepting clergy and bishops were part of the package of becoming an Episcopalian. I would not tell someone else that lay presidency is Anglican just because I think it's a swell idea sometimes and is embraced in some quadrants of the Communion. That would be a misnomer and incorrect. When someone has the added the responsibilities as the Archbishop of Canterbury, it becomes even clearer. His position is obvious - to remain steadfast to uphold the Communion's teachings and not promote his own private musings, a foreign idea to many Episcopal bishops. As Archbishop of Canterbury - and a catholic one at that - when he speaks, he speaks in his capacity from the seat of St. Augustine. He will not relinquish that authority just to please some hot heads in Manhattan and LA.

Again, we ask the question. Who gains most by the publication of these letters? Who gains most by embarrassing and calling into question the convictions of the Archbishop of Canterbury? Who gains most from a weakened and embattled Archbishop of Canterbury? Who would send those letters to Ruth Gledhill, even before the conference started, to undermine the efforts of Rowan Williams to place personal preferences aside and implore the Communion to stay together, come hell or high water? Who would want to embarrass him publicly in such a crass and political manner?

No matter how we might disagree with the man who holds that position now, there are rules of engagement and this kind of action may be the modes operi in American politics but to engage those tactics on the cover of the Times of London is just plain wrong. If someone wants to confront Rowan Williams with things he said eleven years ago, then they write to him or ask him for a meeting and ask him face to face. And you listen carefully to his response. If he goes off his rocker, you go back and you take a friend with you and try to reason with him. If he still goes off his rocker, then you bring him before the other primates. None of that happened - in fact, none of that would have happened because this is old news timed to hit papers abroad. It's a cynical attempt to gain the upper hand.

But that is not what we have here. We have an American-style smear campaign meant to embarrass him and weaken his office. That is the kind of thing people do in desperation to retain their own power. Now Rowan Williams has reiterated the position of Lambeth 1.10 personally. That is more than we could have hoped to see him do at the Lambeth Conference. We now have a place to stand with him, for those of us who live in dioceses and provinces where Lambeth 1.10 is mocked and ignored. He has now traveled for these past few days as the object of public scorn on the streets of London and now around the world, as many of our own bishops and archbishops have known themselves when they resisted the pressures of The Episcopal Church to conform. With that in mind, we wonder - as Bob Dylan so famously did forty years ago, "how does it feel?"

From here:
In response to the recent coverage of the correspondence dated back to 2000, The Archbishop Canterbury has made the following statement:

In the light of recent reports based on private correspondence from eight years ago, I wish to make it plain that, as I have consistently said, I accept Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference as stating the position of the worldwide Anglican Communion on issues of sexual ethics and thus as providing the authoritative basis on which I as Archbishop speak on such questions.

That Resolution also recognises the need for continuing study and discussion on the matter. In the past, as a professional theologian, I have made some contributions to such study. But obviously, no individual's speculations about this have any authority of themselves. Our Anglican Church has never exercised close control over what individual theologians may say. However, like any church, it has the right to declare what may be said in its name as official doctrine and to define the limits of legitimate practice. As Archbishop I understand my responsibility to be to the declared teaching of the church I serve, and thus to discourage any developments that might imply that the position and convictions of the worldwide Communion have changed.

In addition, you can read the letter from N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, and eighteen other English bishops who have risen to Rowan Williams' defense. How interesting where he is now finding his friends.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Anon. Appreciate the editorial feedback, I just fixed the sentence. Unfortunately, Hagrid's a bit sensitive today and it looks like he just tossed you out the door. Sorry about that. Next time, watch tossing your slice of cream pie through the air after offering a bit of truly helpful editorial advice. The advice we appreciate very much, the flying cream pie we do not. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

For one thing the letters were only seven years ago, not eleven. And no, they weren't just speculations of a theologian. They were on official church letterhead while he was archbishop of Canterbury. Of course, they are entirely consistent with the man who ordained an non-celibate homosexual to the priesthood as archbishop of Wales.

The glaring question is whether Rowan has really put them aside and that he his now towing the official teachings? Sure, he seems to mostly honor Lambeth 1.10 with his lips (in a very weak, wafflely sort of way). But his actions betray him.

Anonymous said...

Rowan William's is hard headed & pragmatic. If he does not publicly support resolution 1.10, he will lose the backing & respect of 80% of the communion. He knows this. He does not want to be the ABC who presided over the break-up of the anglican communion.

Anonymous said...

The thoughts on the Eucharist were very helpful. The Eucharist is the center of my relationship with Christ. As part of my journey to become ordained, I became a visiting Eucharistic minister. It was the greatest achievement of my life the first time I offered the Eucharist as a representative of Christ.

What soured things a bit is that you must pay to keep a license in TEC, or you are no longer valid. That seems a bit like a pharisee call, but it's all part of the bigger picture of who gets to be part of the inner circle. The fact that I am attending a Baptist seminary makes this journey all the more interesting. For example, the Apostles didn't sell licenses to bring the Eucharist to the sick and dying. Being 'licensed to bless' is very St. James Bond, but is it biblical(?), of course not.

Meeting the people that run the church through this blog, and what goes on on a grand scale to damage the church of Christ has been cause for me to reconsider whatever my calling truly is. I appreciate this little spot of cyber-retreat and reflections.

This all reminds me of when news casting personalities try to become the news instead of doing their real job of representing it. These heads of spiritual state are not the Good News, and their ramblings on, and in sin, is simply them not doing their real job.

Mark Harris said...

about the lay presidency of the eucharist...I believe BB is at least half right on this. There is nothing in my read that makes it Gospel wrong to have lay presidency and a lot that is Gospel right. There is the problem of tradition / order but there are ways to safeguard the efficacy of the sacrament making it not dependent on the faith of the celebrant even in the case of lay presidency. If the lay person presiding became the regular presiding officer, after a while it would seem in order to ordain the make them the parson / priest.

I do not look in horror at lay presidency. It does not diminish my ministry as a priest one bit. It would change just why the church might wish to have me around. That would not be a bad thing.

So in at least one case BB has found a liberal / radical church person who thinks it is the church's business to consider this as well as other developments in context of more open theological borders.

I don't agree with her that being Anglican / Episcopal means buying on and no changes. It means buying on and making do and making changes when necessary or revealed as such and in community decision making. I used to think it also required doing so with respect and just a bit of humility, but sometimes I am not sure the word has gotten around.

Then again it is Saturday and the day before preaching and as usual I am struck by how little I know, except that Jesus will give a hand when I sink.